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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 19, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 47
Section One
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Gays seek refuge in Cambodia slum

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Along the train tracks in one of Phnom Penh's ubiquitous slums, roughly 100 new residents in search of asylum and community, have trickled in over the last several years and lead lives in deplorable desperation. Almost all of them are homosexual men. This place, Beuong Kak 2, has become a home: Cambodia's first Gay town.

But unlike the Castro in San Francisco or Seattle's Capitol Hill, this isn't a place for Gays to celebrate sexuality and love; instead, it's emerged as a place for mere survival. Most Beuong Kak 2 residents only sleep during the day, perform acts of prostitution, and dress as women.

The traditional neighbors were baffled - and sometimes frightened - by the swelling number of openly Gay Khmer joining the village.

'We're scared that more [homosexuals] will keep coming here and make more terrible activities back there,' said Srey Oun, 48. 'Everyone is scared like me. Khmer culture isn't changing, but the people are.'

According to longtime heterosexual residents, newcomers arrive every month. Since 2004, the number of 'out' homosexuals in Phnom Penh has exploded around 900 to approximately 10,000 today, according to nongovernmental organizations that track the city's Gay community. Other provinces have seen such staggering growth among their Gay communities as well, census records show.

Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen criticized Cambodia's reputation as a destination for sex tourism. Soon after, police closed brothels and karaoke bars across the capitol, where many Transgender people worked and lived. As a result, many headed to the slums of Beuong Kak 2.

'If we're not with each other, we're scared everyone will look down on us or beat us,' said Kong Chan Rattna, 24, who lives with eight fellow Transgender folks. 'Together, we can have happiness - we can go anywhere. Nothing's a problem.'

Cambodia's definition of homosexuality and gender challenges Western notions. In Cambodia, there is a third gender - frequently called 'lady boys' - that falls somewhere between male and female. By all appearances and mannerisms they're female and identify as such, and although they were born male, most haven't undergone any sex-change operations.

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